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Who Wins Gubernatorial Nod May Hinge on Female Voters

Democrats: Shannon P. O'Brien has huge lead over three male hopefuls in Massachusetts race.

September 17, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — In a heated Democratic primary, female voters in Massachusetts could prove decisive in choosing their party's gubernatorial nominee today. Most likely, polls show, the candidate will be Shannon P. O'Brien, the state treasurer and the sole woman among four Democrats seeking the coveted corner office on Beacon Hill.

"Women might actually make the fundamental decision," said political analyst Lou DiNatale of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "This would be a first in Massachusetts, where being a woman on the ticket has been a net positive--not just symbolic, but a genuine vote-getter."

A poll in Sunday's Boston Herald gave O'Brien, 43, a commanding lead with 34%. Former state Sen. Warren Tolman, 42, followed in the survey of 458 voters with 21%. State Senate President Thomas Birmingham, 53, earned support from 17% of those surveyed, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, 55, trailed with 16%. The survey, with an error margin of plus or minus 4.6%, showed 12% of Democratic voters still undecided.

A survey released Friday by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV also gave O'Brien a strong lead, at 31%. The Globe-WBZ poll put Birmingham and Reich in a tie for second place, with 22% each. Tolman came in last at 13%. The survey of 400 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

The figures capped more than nine months of aggressive campaigning to determine which Democrat would oppose venture capitalist Mitt Romney, the lone Republican running for governor. Romney, 55, stepped in when acting Gov. Jane Swift, under pressure from her party for poor performance, announced that she would not run for the office she assumed almost two years ago when former Gov. Paul Cellucci became U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Romney, who earlier ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against longtime Democratic incumbent Edward M. Kennedy, prevailed in a court challenge to his state residency brought by Democrats. The former head of Bain Capital lived in Utah while running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee, but he also maintained a home near Boston that he has owned for more than 30 years.

Romney is a social and fiscal conservative whose running mate, Kerry Murphy Healey, briefly served as head of the state Republican Party and who twice lost bids for the state House. Weekend polls showed Healey locked in a near tie with fellow Republican Jim Rappaport, an outspoken Romney antagonist, for the party's nomination for lieutenant governor.

The four Democrats share similar positions on certain major issues, such as opposing the death penalty and supporting abortion rights. But O'Brien used a strong campaign organization founded on 15 years of state politics to break away from the pack.

Although gender has appeared to be an asset, O'Brien has carefully avoided exploiting that aspect of her campaign, said Elizabeth Sherman of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership.

"She actually had a policy from the get-go of not mentioning gender," said Sherman, an expert on women in politics. "She would say, 'I don't think that makes any difference. I think it's my experience and my fiscal management you should vote for.' She eschewed the whole idea of being 'the woman' candidate."

Pitted against Romney, said DiNatale, "the test will be whether she can define herself to an audience that doesn't know her vision and her positions quicker than Romney can define her in a negative way."

However, he said, "if I had to bet between someone who calls water-skiing his favorite sport and the captain of the Yale women's soccer team, I think I know who I would choose. This is a tough kid. She is a counter-puncher."

Also on the ballot for governor are Carla Howell, a Libertarian who is seeking to ban income tax in Massachusetts, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

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